Using the same chemical weapon as fire ants, there's something just a little Day-of-the-Triffids about stinging nettles. But not to worry, they're only dangerous until you cook them.
|Serve nettles cooked in red wine over fried polenta and top with some shaved parmesan. A first course worth building a dinner party menu around.|
for the polenta
1 c. chicken stock
1 c. nettle tea (see below) or vegetable stock
generous pinch of salt
3/4 c. cornmeal
1/2 tbsp good quality olive oil
butter for pan-frying (bonus points for using your own hand-crafted butter!)
for the nettles
1 tbsp olive oil (or more or less to coat bottom of skillet)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
ground pepper to taste
salt to taste
1 dried red chili pepper, torn into pieces
1 c. blanched and drained stinging nettle leaves (see below), roughly chopped
1/4 c. red wine
1/4 c. nettle tea (see below) or water
Parmesan-Reggiano, shaved, to taste
Prepare the polenta at least 3 hours and up to 2 days ahead of time. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the stock, nettle tea and salt over med-high heat until boiling. Turn down to medium, but keep the liquid at a rolling boil and slowly pour cornmeal in, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Turn the heat down more if the polenta is sputtering. Continue stirring until the cornmeal is cooked and the polenta is thick. Remove from heat. When the mixture is no longer bubbling, stir in the olive oil. Pour into a square baking pan (glass, non-stick, or lightly oiled), spread to corners and level out. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set the polenta.
(Three hours, conveniently, is enough time to go back out to pick and process another batch of stinging nettles for the freezer.)
|You can tell they're good for you just by looking at the rich green colour |
of the blanched stinging nettles. They taste good too.
Prep your nettle ingredients. Cut the polenta into 4 squares and set aside. (Trim the outside for a more even edge, the scraps can be fried as a snack or to dip in soft-cooked eggs for breakfast...)
You do have at least two skillets, right?
Put a generous pat of butter into the pan where you plan to fry the polenta.
In your other skillet (the one you have a lid for), heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute garlic and shallot until softened. Add black pepper, salt and hot pepper and saute for another minute. Add nettles toss until fully covered in oil and slightly wilted (1-2 minutes).
Turn the heat under your polenta pan to medium.
Add red wine to nettles and stir until liquid has evaporated. Turn heat down to med-low, add nettle tea, cover and cook for 5-6 minutes.
While the nettles steam, fry your polenta squares. When the butter in your polenta pan is thin and the foam is subsiding, add the squares of polenta. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until heated through. They should have a thin golden brown crust.
Remove cover from nettles and allow any remaining liquid to evaporate.
To plate, top each polenta square with 1/4 of the nettle mixture, then artfully place shaved parmesan on top. Serve as a first course. (This would also make a good side dish for grilled salmon or lobster.)
Nettles have a very present yet delicate flavour but none of the bitterness that many wild greens have... their defense is stinging, so they don't need to taste bad to avoid being eaten. While the flavour is not as strong as mature spinach, but the texture is much meatier.
There is an enormous nettle patch a short diversion from one of our favourite coastal trails. Getting ready to head out foraging, it felt a bit insane choosing to go out gathering food in the famous Newfoundland rain, drizzle and fog... especially knowing that when we returned, we'd be cold and damp and the dogs would inevitably smell like, well, wet dogs.
But if you always wait for perfect weather to go outside, you might rarely leave your house. (Especially if live on an island in the North Atlantic.) You'd miss out on the magic of being in water-saturated air... sure, it's wet, but the colour of the rocks and trees and birds is deeper and fuller and sound travels with more richness. The reduced visibility makes the world a bit smaller and cozier.
As we were wading, drenched, through the knee-high patch of nettle, snapping of the tops of the plants, we heard the drone of an outboard motor halt. It's funny how sometimes you only hear a noise because it stops. The motor cut and was followed by the hollow thump-thump of lobster pots being checked. The motor starts, then stops, thump-thump, thump-thump, repeat. The rhythm of that work is very distinct to the ear and even though we both knew what we were listening to, we looked up anyway, because that's what you do.
As though waiting for us to turn away from the nettles, a massive bald eagle suddenly flew close enough and low enough we could distinguish the yellowish-whites of its eyes. An eagle beside us, a lobster boat below us, a couple of great big bags full of nettle... that's exactly why we were out in the rain instead of bundled up on the couch watching the new season of Orange is the New Black.
Identifying and handling stinging nettle (Urtica spp.)
|Nettles tend to grow in patches and can often be spotted by the change|
in texture they create.
The easiest way to identify a nettle is by touching it. If you've ever walked through a patch of tall weeds when wearing short pants, only to find your legs prickling with fire, you've encountered stinging nettle. The touch-method is not recommended. Head out dressed for the job: long pants, long sleeves, gloves.
Since it was rain-drizzle-and-fogging the day we went out searching for nettle, in addition to pocketing a pair of rubberized gloves, I wore my rain suit. Rain jacket, rain pants, rubber boots. No matter that we've lived in rural Newfoundland for over 6 years, Fefe Noir's fashion rules irrationally exclude rain pants. She refers to them as my "plastic trousers" and rolls her eyes at me whenever I put them on. But who got the last laugh? Not only did I stay dry, but as we were wading through a field of nettle, Fefe discovered that you can, indeed, be stung by nettle through a pair of jeans.
(But wait, between that handicap and her photo-taking duties, I ended up doing most of the actual harvesting...)
|Stinging nettles are easily identified by touch, but try to avoid finding them that way. Look for slender plants with large, toothed leaves in opposite pairs. The stems and leaves are fuzzy from being covered in stinging hairs.|
Nettles are tall plants with slender stems and paired leaves. The leaves are broad but come to a definite point on the ends and the edges are toothed. The leaves and stem are covered in tiny hairs. The flowers are green-ish and hang in clusters, but you don't need to know that much: if it's already flowering, it's too late in the year (but write the location down somewhere so you can come back next year, earlier).
|Wear rubberized gloves when you pick stinging nettle. |
For older plants (over 20 cm high), snap off the top
15-20 cm only.
Once you're home and ready to process the nettles, keep your gloves on while you break off the top young leaves and pull the older leaves from the stem. Toss the stems and rejected leaves (brown, moth-eaten, bruised) into your composter. Blanch the nettle in saltwater to neutralize the sting, and squeeze the nettle tea from them. Hank Shaw provides a very good description of processing stinging nettles, so I will direct you there rather than taking up unnecessary space. Save the nettle tea for this recipe, or to use as a substitute for vegetable broth in all sorts of dishes.